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The Utah Jazz keep getting burned by the same problem in the NBA Playoffs

It’s déjà vu all over again for the Jazz.

Utah Jazz v Dallas Mavericks - Game Two Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Luka Doncic’s calf injury in the final game of the regular season should have eliminated any chance the Dallas Mavericks had of competing with the Utah Jazz in the first round of 2022 NBA Playoffs. The Mavs are as reliant on Doncic as any team in the league is on their top player, with his NBA-leading 37.4 percent usage rate serving as exhibit 1. While the Mavs did acquire another ball handler at the trade deadline in Spencer Dinwiddie in a bold deal that sent out Kristaps Porzingis, the majority of Dallas’ roster is in place to help amplify Doncic’s masterful shot creation, not replace it.

Yet with Doncic in sweats again for Game 2, Dallas routinely generated wide open look after wide open look in crunch-time to take home a 110-104 victory that evened the series at 1-1. The Mavs aren’t supposed to be so dynamic on offense without their 23-year-old superstar, but the combination of a sharp game plan and some inspired individual performances was enough to keep hope alive in the series.

Dallas entered the fourth quarter trailing by four points. It proceeded to shoot 11-of-18 overall and 6-of-8 from three-point range in the final frame to steal the win. The impressive shooting percentages were less about the shot-making and more about Dallas’ ability to completely compromise Utah’s defense with dribble penetration. It was a game plan born out of watching how the Jazz collapsed against the Los Angeles Clippers in last year’s playoffs while LA was missing its own superstar Kawhi Leonard with an injury.

The Jazz defense is built around the world’s best rim protector in Rudy Gobert, but there’s only so much he can do when the opposing team has five shooters on the floor and his perimeter defenders are regularly getting burned at the point of attack. Utah’s nightmare scenario played out in the fourth quarter when Dallas subbed out a lob threat in Dwight Powell for a shooter in Maxi Kleber at the center spot.

With Gobert now forced to guard someone standing at the arc, Dallas bent Utah’s defense by repeatedly burning their poor perimeter defenders at the point of attack to get anything they wanted.

Watch the way Dinwiddie speeds past Donovan Mitchell on this drive and forces the rotation by Gobert to prevent the layup. As Gobert gets in position to challenge the layup, Kleber is wide open, and there’s no rotation coming to contest the shot.

It happens again a minute later. A bone crushing screen from Reggie Bullock forces Mitchell to switch onto Brunson, and he easily makes his way deep into the paint once again. This could have been an easy layup for Brunson, but as Gobert rotates over he sees Dorian Finney-Smith wide open in the corner.

That’s another spoon-fed triple.

What happened when Gobert didn’t full commit to protecting the rim? It was easy layups all day.

The Utah Jazz were burned again by poor perimeter defense

Credit Brunson for a remarkable performance that saw him score a career-high 41 points in perhaps the biggest game of his career. Credit Kleber for connecting on eight three-pointers on his way to 25 points — one off his own career-high.

Dallas’ key pieces were great, and their game plan was just as good: get five shooters on the floor, burn Utah off the dribble, suck Gobert over to the rim, and rip open three after open three. While some want to blame Gobert for the Jazz’s defensive shortcomings, there’s not much an elite rim protector can do about this.

Utah simply has to control the ball better on the defensive end in front of Gobert. That’s on Mitchell and Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović more than it’s on the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

The Jazz built their roster to go all-in on offense with Gobert cleaning up everything on defense. Utah finished with the No. 1 offense in the NBA this year despite Mitchell and Gobert missing big chunks of the season with injuries. This roster has some great offensive players on the perimeter who can drive, shoot, and pass.

The problem is they can’t hold up on the other end of the floor, and Gobert can’t solve all their problems when he has to defend a shooter.

That isn’t to say Gobert is completely blameless. His biggest issue is his inability to punish a small center on offense. Gobert finished with only eight points on 2-of-5 shooting from the field on the night in 37 minutes. Yes, his teammate need to get him more involved offensively, but Gobert has also to prove he deserves the touches by finishing around the rim.

Everyone knew Utah’s problem this offseason, and they still didn’t fix it

The Jazz made only two notable offseason additions, adding Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside to the roster. Gay was supposed to be a more mobile five option to help defend smaller lineups. Whiteside offers a similar skill set to Gobert and is supposed to keep Utah’s defensive game plan in tact when the Frenchman needs rest.

Gay was a DNP in Game 2, while Whiteside’s 11 minutes didn’t matter much when Dallas was slicing up the Jazz in the fourth quarter.

If there’s a change Utah needs, it’s trading out some perimeter offense for perimeter defense. Conley and Bogdanović simply aren’t good enough defenders to stay on the floor with Mitchell. There are too many weak links in front of Gobert once again. The same scenario that played out against the Clippers last season is reoccurring like a bad dream, and everyone can see it.

The Jazz thought they were addressing their issues defending small lineups in the offseason by adding someone like Gay, but in reality Gobert has to be on the floor because he’s one of the better players in the league. No way is he getting benched in crunch-time. What Utah really needs is perimeter defenders who aren’t getting smoked by the likes of Dinwiddie and Brunson time after time.

It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Utah learned that lesson the hard way in Game 2 against the Mavs.